For the first time in 21 years, the Boston Bruins are headed for the Stanley Cup Final.
In a series that was as even as anyone could imagine, the Bruins got a goal from Nathan Horton with 7:33 remaining in regulation Friday night to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 1-0 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
"I couldn't have asked for a better Game 7 from our team," said Boston coach Claude Julien.
It was the second Game 7 winner this spring for Horton, whose overtime goal in the first round sent the Montreal Canadiens home for the summer. He's the first player to get two Game 7 winners in the same playoff year – pretty good for someone who had never been to the postseason before being acquired by the Bruins last summer. The Bruins improved to 7-0 this spring when Horton scores a goal.
The goal was Boston's 21st of the series – the Lightning also scored 21.
Boston's Tim Thomas stopped 24 shots for his second shutout of the series, sending the Bruins to their first Final since they faced Edmonton in 1990. This time, they'll travel to the Pacific Northwest to face the Vancouver Canucks in a series that begins Wednesday night.
"Both teams have worked extremely hard to get to this point," said Boston's Mark Recchi, a British Columbia native who's seeking a third Stanley Cup to go with the ones he won with Pittsburgh in 1991 and '92. "It's been a great battle for everyone. We started from Day 1 in training camp, we put a lot of work in together to build trust, believe in each other. We got to a Game 7 and played probably our best game of the playoffs."
It was a heartbreaking loss for the Lightning, who had never lost a seventh game. Tampa Bay, which made the playoffs for the first time since 2007, won both Game 7s it played on the way to the Cup in 2004 and nipped Pittsburgh 1-0 in Game 7 of its first-round series last month.
"We started the year with half the team that's new, an entire staff that's new, an administration that's new," said coach Guy Boucher, himself a newcomer after being hired by new GM Steve Yzerman. "I think it's outstanding that the players, the coaches, everyone involved in the organization, was able to get this team to be a team real fast. That's really difficult even with a team that you had the previous year.
"We have to be proud of our players -- they put everything on the ice. But at the same time, I think it's a moment to learn. What the Bruins have done gives you hope for the future."
The Bruins had the better of the chances through the first 52 minutes, but couldn't find a way to get the puck past Roloson, who even used his mask to make a couple of brilliant stops on second-period deflections.
The goal, when it came, did so with stunning suddenness on a perfect transition play.
Andrew Ference started it with a nice pass to Krejci at the attacking blue line. With Horton going hard to the net, Krejci worked his way to the left circle and put a pass right on his tape. Horton just deflected it into the net -- Roloson had no chance after stopping the first 34 shots he faced.
The Bruins preserved their lead with relentless defense, allowing the Lightning only two shots after taking the lead. Boston's forechecking was so persistent that the Lightning had a hard time pulling Roloson in the final 90 seconds after coach Guy Boucher began calling him to the bench.
"I think this was one of the better games that we've played as far as there were no big mistakes I saw," Julien said. "We had energy, we had confidence. We had some chances earlier on but their goaltender was extremely good and kept them in the game."
The shutout was Thomas' second of the series and the third of his playoff career.
when the game ended, The 37-year-old raised both arms and arched his back against the net as the final seconds ticked off.
"I think a lot of people thought I was over the hill,"' said Thomas, a Vezina Trophy finalist again two years after he won the award -- and one year after he was sidelined by injuries throughout last year's playoffs. "I knew it wasn't true. I put in a lot of work over the summer and I've had an unbelievable year. I've been blessed."Perhaps most amazing is that despite the furious intensity, the game was penalty-free.
"What I liked about the officiating is that they let the players decide it," Julien said.
The Bruins controlled play in the first period, outshooting Tampa Bay 15-9, and had the best scoring chance when Milan Lucic took a breakaway pass from Krejci with just under five minutes remaining. But Lucic shot the puck right into Roloson.
The Bruins also had some great chances late in the second, when they outshot Tampa Bay 14-8. Roloson made a pad save on Mark Recchi's shot from a few feet away then made another when Recchi shot the rebound with just under 2 1/2 minutes left in the period. Krejci barely missed with 1:40 remaining when he deflected a blast by Zdeno Chara over the net.
"I wasn't concerned about my team," Thomas said. "I was concerned about Roloson playing so well."
The Bruins are trying to end a Stanley Cup drought that dates to 1972, when a team led by Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito defeated the New York Rangers in six games for their second Cup in three years. Since then, Boston has gone to the Final in 1974, '77, '78, '88 and '90 without bringing home a championship.
Julien knows ending that drought won't be easy.
"Right now, we're four wins away from the Stanley Cup," he said. "We understand what's at stake here. We understand who we're playing -- they're a really good team that dominated the whole League this year, and we're going to have to play a lot like we did tonight if we want to give ourselves a chance."